You Can’t Run, and You Can’t Hide, Either.Posted: September 18, 2009
Today, a rare “guest column,” written by Jim Dyer after his return from visiting the site where The Battle of the Bulge in World War 2 took place — a battle in which his father was an infantryman.
“J.J. Bittenbinder is a recognized authority on assault prevention.”
In Chicago, there’s an ex-cop by the name of J.J. Bittenbinder. He lectures on personal safety on the mean streets of the city. One of his talks is about not getting shot if somebody holds a gun on you and wants something you have.
His first rule is “run”.
Before you even think about getting in the car (absolutely do not get in a car) or before you think about struggling (you’ll get shot at close range — count on it), or pulling your own gun (your assailant will take it from you and kill you with it), run. Put distance between yourself and the person who has the gun. Bittenbinder presents a calculus of survival that goes something like this: at close range thugs have about a ten percent chance of hitting one of your vital organs on the first shot. For every X feet (ten? twenty? I don’t really remember) that you put between the thug and you, your thug’s chance of hitting you at all decreases by a factor of ten. If you get in a car with a thug with a gun, you’re about 90 percent certain of being dead within minutes.
Run. Run like crazy. That’s the deal. Do not look back. If you run, you will almost certainly survive.
In Diekirch, Luxembourg is the National Military Museum. In it is some of the detritus of the Battle of the Bulge. Bits left over from one of the most bloody battles in history. Somewhere in this museum, or maybe in the Patton Museum in Ettlebruck, or maybe in both, is a glass fronted case about seven feet tall and two and a half feet or so wide. In it is a mannequin dressed in the typical field gear of the American foot soldier who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He’s got on wool uniform pants, shirt, a wool scarf, or balaclava over his head, a helmet, a wool trenchcoat, leather boots. He wears a web belt with a strap over the shoulder, on which is hung his canteen, ammunition pouches, and I can’t rememember what else.
Not a rig made to run in.
This is the gear my dad wore in the Battle of the Bulge. In the woods of the Ardennes. In the neighborhood of Diekirch. In the worst winter in Europe in a hundred years. Also carrying a bazooka, a rocket launcher about four feet long.
I remember one story my dad told about how after firing a bazooka you run like hell because the flash and the smoke trail tells whoever you’re shooting at exactly where you are. He was in a town, or on a farm, and he had fired his weapon, and he was running along a wooden fence about six feet high, or so, chin strap unbuckled, rifle over his shoulder, bazooka in one hand and the other hand on his helmet, holding it on and he came to the corner where this fence turned, and his head banged into something. He looked up and his head had banged into the helmet of a German soldier. They looked at each other for a split second, turned around and ran like hell. I can see J.J. Bittenbinder nodding his head and saying, “Exactly.”
“Much of the Ardennes is covered in dense forests, with the old mountains averaging around 350-500 m (1,148-1,640 ft) in height”
Running as a solution to being shot is not an option in the Ardennes. There’s a trail in Bettendorf, between Diekirch and Echternach maintained in memory of my dad, and the 85,000 American casualties inflicted during the few months of the Battle. Along this trail are stations showing details of what it was like. Foxholes. Tank Tracks. Graffiti carved in the trees. Small bunkers with tin roofing stolen from farmers’ barns. Most impressive, though, at least to me, was the forest itself. ‘Dense’ as Wiki describes it. A tree every four or five feet. Connected by underbrush.
I imagine trying to run in these woods. Getting my canteen, or my web belt, or my rifle, or my bazooka caught on the branches and undergrowth. Tripping over roots. Not going to happen. My dad’s not running in these woods, that’s for sure. I imagine my dad sitting still, not running, and the scratchy wool of his uniform rubbing his neck raw. His wrists. His ankles inside leather boots. Wet leather boots. And later his feet blistering and bleeding from being in water up to his knees for days on end. Freezing water. Until he finally has to face the fact that he’s got trenchfoot. Frozen feet. And he can’t even walk, much less run to keep from getting shot. And being my dad, somebody has to tell him he can’t walk. And tell him his Battle is over. And carry him to where he can get transported out. Maybe he’s glad. Maybe not. Probably he’s glad to be out of there. I would be. For sure.
“Some vehicles, like the M4 18-ton High Speed Tractor, gained popularity back in the 1950s when Revell put out a model of the 155mm M2 “Long Tom” gun with the tractor and a crew of figures, and this neat looking vehicle first became known to modelers.”
Some time in grade school I went through the plastic model phase, and actually built a model of the M4 with its long gun in tow. I know my dad watched as I put it together. What I now know is that there’s a beautifully restored M4, or one of its close relatives in the National Military Museum in Diekirch. Out front, in reasonable shape is a 155mm artillery piece just like the one I assembled. I was struck by the fact that across the aisle in the main hall of the museum was a very similar artillery tractor left by the German army. The American tractor was sharp. efficient. well built. On the German one, the windshield frame was wood. Rough wood.
I asked the museum docent about the wood windshield frames. He nodded and confirmed that the Germans were pretty much on their last resources at that time. Then he mentioned that he had been called out by a farmer and the police the day before to help investigate a skeleton that had been found on the battlefield. It was a German artillery horse. Horse drawn artillery. Child soldiers commanded by officers hardened on the Russian Front. Brutal. Now, as I write this, I wonder what my dad thought about this model I made of the M4 with its long gun. I can’t even begin to speculate. Dad never said a word.
I tried to engage him about a year before he died. Showed him some pictures, gave him copies of a military history of the battle in the Diekirch region. Tried to talk to him about it. Truthfully, I was looking for closure. I was looking for some explanation of issues and attitudes, hurts real or imagined, a fuller picture of why he was the way he was, why I am the way I am. He never rose to the bait. With few exceptions, like the story I related earlier, he kept his mouth shut.
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
I know there’s a better quote somewhere to sum up what I learned when Mooneen and I spent two days chasing dad’s combat service this summer. From a better literary mind than Donald Rumsfeld. I can’t think of one at this moment. As I journaled about what we found in Luxembourg, I knew I hadn’t found the explanations, the causes and conditions, the closure I was looking for. I did learn two things:
It’s not the war. It’s the man.
And, It’s not the father. It’s the son.
I learned it’s me.
And part of me is from the region of Diekirch. In Luxembourg.